Learning Communities: Transforming Learning

Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2017 | TELjournal.ca

As educator Robert John Meehan notes, “The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other.”  If we want to transform schooling, attention needs to be placed on a learning communities model that nudges learning and shifts educators from a single cell mindset towards collective action.

See the video below for a peek into this innovative school.


When I was teaching, I believed that I could make a difference.

When I became an administrator, I believed that I could make a difference.

After over a decade as a principal, I finally started realizing that I couldn’t make a difference and that only WE could make a difference. As a school community we needed to journey together towards collective action.

Clay Shirky explains collective action. There are three levels of collaboration – sharing, cooperating and collective action.

Sharing is the easiest of the three. You offer something of use to others who can do as they wish with the item or content.

Cooperating is the second level and is harder because it means “changing your behaviour to synchronize with others who are changing their behaviour to synchronize with yours” (Shirky, 2008). Cooperating involves shared risk and reward – conversational skills are important as well as adhering to mutually agreed upon standards while remaining flexible.

Collective action is the third and rarest level of collaboration. It happens when a group of people commit themselves to a shared effort. It’s not about individuals but the group. It is the hardest to get going and to sustain, involves shared risk, reward and accountability. It requires significant collaboration and dedication. It is a game changer and creates interest and demand from others regarding the collective efforts.

Educators have been great at sharing and cooperating to varying degrees. Collective action not so much. For over a decade, the work of Richard Dufour et al, around the establishment of Professional Learning Communities has encouraged educators to meet regularly, to share expertise and work collaboratively to improve teaching skills and student learning. My experience with PLCs is that teachers collaborate through cooperation but PLCs do not necessarily lead to collective action.

However, in my opinion, the learning community model is enabling collective action to occur. Through school design, architects have pushed the learning agenda further suggesting that both space -- referenced as the third teacher, and the social nature of learning -- through the establishment of flexible learning spaces, are essential elements of school design. Rather than classrooms being built in single cells, a number of classrooms are being built as part of a learning community to force the collaborative agenda daily.

I was offered the opportunity to be the instructional leader of a brand new build, Norma Rose Point School designed with a Learning Community Concept. I knew that if we wanted to transform learning and reach the highest rung on the ladder, we needed to do by placing the importance on the group rather than the individual.

At NRP being part of a learning community means you are a part of one of nine learning teams. Staff co-plan, co-teach and co-learn with a team of 4 to 6 staff members and students do the same with a team ranging from 60 – 120 student learners.

I began to more fully understand the social nature of learning -- how working in a learning community nudges the learning agenda and creates learning experiences that are beyond the capability of any one teacher.

Unlike individual classroom that vary in what’s offered by teachers from room to room, a learning community model creates equity for learners by allowing everyone in the community to experience the best of each staff member.

In What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise, Professor John Hattie lands on the power of collaborative learning. His decades of research have confirmed that the greatest influence on student learning is having “expert, inspired, and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximize the effect of their teaching on all students in their care”.

Hattie’s quote is unpacked by teacher Karen Chow, one of four team members in the grade ½ Sword Fern Community at Norma Rose Point School.

I have to say that we think of our community as a whole collective of 72 students. I don’t see them as 24, 24, 24.   It is a group of 72 students with four teachers as part of that community and we are happy to mix those children up in any grouping size and we are happy to interchange teaching spaces. We work with all the children and the children see all four of us as equal parts in their education.

How does the team collaborate? Well, we talk about our group of students every day – the whole community. We talk about any issues that have arisen. We take an equal interest in each other’s homeroom students. We discuss plans for that student -- how we can develop a proactive approach to getting that child what they need.

Professional learning is an ongoing daily practice as teachers share a professional office within each community as they co-plan, observe each other teaching, reflect on what went well and what didn’t, adjust lessons, consider next steps and become adaptive to the needs of the student learners. The level of daily professional conversations does not happen in a single cell environment.

Hattie’s work informs educators on what has the greatest influence on student learning. His extensive meta-analysis allows educators to gauge the effectiveness of almost 200 educational interventions and compare these interventions with “effect size”. Anything above the effect size .40 – what he refers to as the “hinge point” – can be said to have a greater than average influence on achievement.

According to Hattie’s latest findings, the most powerful influence on achievement with an effect size of 1.57 (almost three times above the hinge point) is Collective Teacher Efficacy -- the belief that together teachers can positively impact student learning.

In a recent podcast, Kristin Anderson, Senior Director of professional learning at Corwin, highlighted the results of high collective efficacy. . .

She further highlights the work of Bloomberg and Pitchford in their book Impact Teams: Building a Culture, that suggests if collective teacher efficacy is high, teachers see themselves as learners in the process, they are committed to success for all learners, have a shared belief that all students can achieve a year’s growth, understand that what teachers do matters and that their collaborative efforts will make a difference.

These beliefs permeate amongst all nine learning communities at NRP servicing 800 students. The teams share a strong sense of collective teacher efficacy – believing that together they can better impact student learning.

If we genuinely want to transform educational practice for the sake of learners – students and staff alike, then more attention needs to be placed on the learning communities model in schools. By working with and observing others, teachers and students are exposed to different ways of doing and to various perspectives which affirms or challenges one’s practices and beliefs.

As educator Robert John Meehan notes, the most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration, our growth is limited to our own perspectives.

Significant change can be affected through collective action and strong collective teacher efficacy. Norma Rose Point School is simply one example of that occurring through a learning communities model. We would love to hear how others are enhancing collaborative expertise to better ensure equity for all learners.

As Helen Keller so aptly stated: Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

Dear Ms Rosa

I am very thankful to have this school. It is the first time where I always wake up happy thinking about my day ahead.

Ana, grade 8 student


Rosa Fazio

I am a Mom.  I am an Educator.  No matter the role, I am passionate about schools reflecting our world and striving to keep up with the times for the sake of our children.  I believe that schools should be beautiful and comfortable learning spaces, with learner well-being, collaboration and inquiry at the forefront.  I have spent the past twenty-seven years working in the education sector.  However, Norma Rose Point School, a state of the art building and innovative learning environment designed in a learning communities model, has taught me most about how learning spaces can transform the way students and staff experience learning.  Always seeking to improve, I value change and the challenge it presents to my professional growth, my ability to inspire others and to better meet the needs of today’s learner.

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